- Tom Conti
Slowing to a walk to catch her breath, Cassi looked around, making mental notes of her surroundings.
The terrain had become less rocky. Looking down, she observed the outline of tire tread marks along the dirt path. “Well…I guess we’re not alone.” Cassi said aloud and jumped as a crow started cawing loudly in a nearby tree to her right.
Nervously laughing, she addressed the crow and said, “Yes, that’s right. It’s just you and me here—wherever here is.” Admiring the silky blackness of the crow she looked into its raven black eyes and felt a peaceful connection. It broke eye contact, turning to look at the path behind her and began cawing loudly, as if to warn her. Cassi turned to look and saw a bus driving along the dirt road toward her. The crow cawed again, but this time Cassi could have sworn she heard the word run within its cawing. Feeling a sense of dread, she quickly ran into the trees to hide.
As the bus approached, it slowed and then stopped a few feet ahead of where she had been standing only a moment before. Cassi watched apprehensively as the door opened, and a man wearing military fatigues stepped out. He had short, dark blonde hair, a commanding stature, and even from a distance, appeared intimidating.
Sauntering toward where Cassi had been standing, the man stopped; spotting the impressions her shoes had made in the dirt. He knelt down to get a closer look and then lifted his head peering in her direction. It seemed as though he was looking straight through her. Her heart racing, Cassi silently said to herself, “Don’t see me. Don’t see me. Don’t see me.”
The man reached to a device on his right shoulder, squeezed the sides and said, “We’ve got a runaway.” His voice was deep and threatening. Cassi held her breath as the man started walking toward her. Quickly determining she could not outrun or fight him off, she slowly stood and raised her hands.
The man towered over Cassi. She saw a metal badge with the name Sergeant Leonard engraved on it. Sergeant Leonard scowled down at Cassi, turned her around abruptly and began securing her wrists in handcuffs. He did not bother removing her backpack. Instead, he chose to fasten her hands on the outside of it; putting a painful strain on her shoulders while simultaneously making her feel small and helpless.
Holding Cassi’s left arm to guide her, Sergeant Leonard walked Cassi toward the bus. Trying not to stumble as he pulled her along, Cassi glanced over and saw the crow watching her. She made eye contact and once again felt a connection to the bird, which infused her with a sensation of calm.
“Move it!” Sergeant Leonard said as he forcefully squeezed her arm to grasp her attention and began walking faster toward the bus. Sergeant Leonard’s hand gripped her arm with such strength, even though she stumbled to keep up, the pace never faltered. Stumbling, Sergeant Leonard shook Cassi into place before she could fall. After the second time of nearly falling, Cassi heard the crow lift off from the trees behind her, cawing loudly as it flew away.
Sergeant Leonard lifted Cassi to the first step of the bus and pushed her up the next two steps. After the second row of seats, there was a wall of thick barbed wire fencing connected at the center by a large metal gate. Sergeant Leonard unlocked the door and roughly pushed her inside locking the gate behind her. Fortunately, her shoulder caught the side of one of the seats, spinning her around, so she landed on her backside instead of her head.
Cassi awkwardly got to her feet and quickly sat in one of the seats to her right, correctly anticipating Sergeant Leonard would be gunning the accelerator to cause her more harm. Tossed backward as he sped away, Cassi twisted around and using her foot, pushed until she could lean her back against the wall just under the window, attempting to take some pressure off of her hands and shoulders. A quick glance around let her know she and Sergeant Leonard were the only two people on the bus.
Living in hiding over the past few months her mother had drilled into Cassi and her sister, Haley to trust no one. They had been instructed to keep all personal information about themselves private and if they ever found themselves in danger, to stay quiet and pay attention to the details of their environment, so if possible, they could escape or provide clues for her to find them. She and Haley had also spent a few weeks after arriving in Hardwick taking self-defense classes. Although Cassi had been practicing, she knew she was nowhere near capable of defending herself against Sergeant Leonard.
Terrified and alone, Cassi allowed silent tears to roll down her cheeks.
After nearly an hour of riding along the dirt road with Sergeant Leonard, and watching one car speed by them, Cassi drifted into a deep sleep. She did not feel the bus stop and groggily awoke when Sergeant Leonard roughly pulled her to her feet. Wincing, Cassi let out a quiet whimper as the painful pins and needles sensation coursed through her arms, which had gone numb.
Hearing her whimper, Sergeant Leonard leaned down and looked into her eyes with a sadistic smile. “Oh, did I hurt you?” He said, mocking her.
Exhausted and tired of his mistreatment, Cassi ignored her instincts to stay quiet and asked, “Why are you being so mean?”
Sergeant Leonard’s sadistic smile broadened, and he stood to his full height. “Mean?” He asked feigning feeling wounded. “You think picking you up out of your seat…is mean? Let me show you what I think is mean.”
Cassi’s face paled as she saw him bring his hands up to her neck. He caressed her throat, bringing his thumbs under her chin and pushing it up, forcing her to look him in the eyes. As their eyes met, Sergeant Leonard let out a soft moan and smirked as he slowly began to squeeze his hands around her throat. Cassi’s hands were still in handcuffs behind her back, and she could do nothing to stop him, but close her eyes to avoid seeing his sadistic smile. Her body started to spasm as it struggled to breathe, but still, she squeezed her eyes shut denying him the satisfaction of seeing her fear.
“Sergeant Leonard!” A man sharply yelled. Cassi opened her eyes as Sergeant Leonard removed his hands, turned and saluted him.
“Your talents are needed elsewhere. Leave the girl with me.”
“Yes, Sir!” Sergeant Leonard responded. Before he left, he looked over to Cassi and said, “Another time then,” and walked away.
The man was not as tall as Sergeant Leonard but appeared to be of a higher rank based on his confident stance and Sergeant Leonard’s reaction. The name on his badge read Lieutenant Sands.
“Turn around. I am going to remove the handcuffs.” Struggling to catch her breath, she followed Lieutenant Sands’ instructions, and after a few moments, Cassi’s arms were free. Heavy and sore, she began to rub her aching arms and wrists. Turning around to face Lieutenant Sands, Cassi wondered nervously what he had in store for her.
Fearful of speaking first, Cassi stayed silent as Lieutenant Sands assessed her.
“So. Tell me your name.” Lieutenant Sands said in a tone conveying she now had permission to speak.
“Ca…” Cassi quickly cleared her throat remembering not to give personal information and finished with “Lisandra, sir.”
“Callasandra?” He repeated.
“Yes, sir. Callasandra Carver.”
“And your age?”
“In which location were you assigned?”
Cassi was not sure how to answer without putting herself in danger, so she shook her head slightly.
“Don’t want to tell me?” Lieutenant Sands asked. Cassi shook her head again.
“I see.” Lieutenant Sands said while slightly furrowing his brows. “You do know we have ways of finding out?” he said giving her a second chance. Cassi remained silent. “As you may have experienced, Sergeant Leonard is very skilled at motivating people into sharing their deepest…secrets. Shall we schedule some time for the two of you to work together?”
Cassi shuddered. “No, No, No! I was...um…assigned up near the rocky hills at Hardwick.” Hoping Hardwick was a real place.
Lieutenant Sands eyes squinted suspiciously. “Hardwick, hmm?” Cassi nodded earnestly.
“Come with me.” Lieutenant Sands guided Cassi in front of him, and together they exited the bus.
Stepping off the bus, Cassi noticed she had been brought to a type of military compound. They walked past a row of buses, along a series of wired fences enclosing sectioned housing, and on toward a collection of tan colored buildings.
Cassi noticed anytime they passed men dressed similar to Sergeant Leonard, they all stopped and saluted him until he had completely passed. Lieutenant Sands continued walking undisturbed as though he did not see them, but Cassi suspected otherwise.
They reached a single-story tan building numbered 125 Administration, where two armed men staring directly forward opened the doors for them.
A man at the front desk stood and saluted when Lieutenant Sands entered the administration building.
“As you were.” Lieutenant Sands told the man who proceeded to sit back down at the desk and wait for further instructions.
Pulling Cassi forward, Lieutenant Sands dictated “Callasandra Carver. Sixteen. Runaway. From Hardwick.” Cassi watched the man writing the details and noticed him pause at the word Hardwick, quickly glancing up at Lieutenant Sands to see if he heard correctly. Lieutenant Sands gave a slow and nearly imperceptible nod. Cassi’s stomach dropped, and she swallowed hard while doing her best not to display any of the fear she was feeling.
“Have her taken to The Camp.” Lieutenant Sands instructed. He then turned to face Cassi, looking as if he wanted to tell her something important; however, before he could proceed a loud buzzer rang at the desk.
“Sir. Sergeant Leonard is requesting for you to visit cell seventeen. He has obtained the information you requested.”
“Thank you.” And with that, Lieutenant Sands turned and exited the building without a second glance.
Cassi looked at the man behind the desk. He nodded for her to sit in one of the chairs against the wall. After less than a minute, another armed guard entered the building and indicated she should come with him. They walked to a smaller building with partitioned dressing areas closed off by flimsy curtains.
The armed guard went to a cabinet, pulled out an army-green-colored jumpsuit and a pair of boots, and handed them to Cassi. While she nervously changed clothes, the guard searched through her backpack, returning it to her as she came out of the dressing booth. Cassi quickly crammed her clothing into her bag while he walked her to one of the fenced-in housing units. The guard unlocked the gated door, signaled for Cassi to enter, locked the door behind her, and left without saying a word.
Cassi looked around the empty courtyard and hesitantly walked toward the housing unit. Taking a deep breath before opening the door to the entrance, Cassi mentally embraced her father’s words. “If you let fear win, you lose.”
Dad, wherever you are, I sure hope you are right.
Opening the door, she was surprised by the sound of many people talking at once. As her eyes adjusted to the room, she saw a series of tables occupied by others who were also wearing army-green jumpsuits. Standing at the doorway without moving, she heard the loudness of the conversations begin to quiet into murmurs. Suddenly a young man walked over to Cassi smiling cheerfully.
“Hey, Sixteen! Name’s Joren” he said. “And you are…?”
“Callasandra,” Cassi responded quietly, internally telling herself, trust no one.
“Well, Callasandra…Welcome to The Camp!”